Monday, March 24, 2008

Mission: Grenada -- 25 years after invasion

It was a quarter-century ago that a coup in the tiny West Indian island nation of Grenada gave the Reagan administration a chance for a sure military victory that removed a long-time irritant and at the same time helped provide a public relations counterweight to what was one of the biggest disasters of the Reagan era, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that same October week.
There's only been one professionally published game on the campaign and its unlikely there will be another one, considering that there was never much chance of a contest between the world's strongest superpower and one of the world's smallest independent states. Most of the interest in the affair over the years has turned on its diplomatic significance. Militarily it's been eclipsed by the much bigger operations that followed in Panama, the First Gulf War and the Afghan/Iraq wars.
At the time, however, it seemed like a big deal as it was the first test of the revitalized U.S. military under Reagan and it revealed some flaws in training and joint operations that were remedied in large part in time for the later operations.

The game was published in 1985, less than two years after the event. While it does a good job with the U.S. order of battlee, which was extensively publicized at the time, the Cuban/Grenadian OB is seriously off the mark and so the game as printed is somewhat limited in its portrayal of the actual events. Within the game, however, are sufficient resources to reflect the actual match up.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bad. It's published in the "microgame" format pioneered by Metagaming and Steve Jackson games, although in this case the publisher is the designer, Wayne Close and his company, Close Simulations. As such the components are minimal: One die-cut countersheet, a map, a small rule book and a small cardboard box.

The best components are the counters, which abandon the usual NATO-style symbols for an imaginative mix of icons, unit insignia and silhouettes. The U.S. counters are black on dark green, and therefore hard to read in poor light, but otherwise a nice presentation. Besides unit designation and type the counters include attack and defense factors and something called "action points" which are a sort of souped-up movement factor.

Perhaps the worst component is the map. Most of the island was covered in dense tropical foliage, which Close chose to represent with dark green. On top of that is overlaid a road net and buildings in black, which is hard to read and makes the U.S. units too well camouflaged to see in anything other than excellent lighting. What's not in black is in red (namely contour lines, beaches and some key landmarks) is in red, and red on green is very hard on the eyes in any lighting condition.

In-between is the rulebook, which appears to have been produced with an early word-processing programming (it was 1985) instead of being typeset, which hurt readability a little, especially given the small type size.

The game system is variation on the action point system seen elsewhere where combat is a function of movement and action points are expended as part of the fighting. In every turn the U.S. player activates units and spends their action point allowance to move and fight, followed by the Cuban/Grenadian player. As a tactical game (units are mostly company-sized) the game system takes into account things like weapons ranges, combined arms, spotting and line of sight.

There are two scenarios included, one depicts the historical assault while the second assumes that the Rangers were used off-map to secure the island's second airport and so the main effort around the capital of St. George's fell to the U.S. Marines.

Both scenarios use the same Cuban/Grenadian OB, which would have represented the "best case" scenario for the defenders if the U.S. had invaded against a unified island well-supported by its Cuban patron.

The actual event, however, was considerably different. The bloody coup by the dour Marxist ideologue Bernard Coard against the popular and charismatic Prime Minister Maurice Bishop robbed the revolutionary government of all its significant public support. Bishop was a personal friend and protege of Cuban leader Fidel Castro who was very upset at Bishop's murder. While Cuban prestige required that the 800 Cuban construction (NOT combat) engineers defend themselves with their small arms if attacked, there was no attempt to coordinate defense plans with Coard's regime. One Cuban officer was sent to the island to take charge of the Cuban detachment, but that was the only reinforcement the island got before the invasion.
The Grenadian regime had been very unpopular with Reagan because of its closeness to Castro and the Grenadians had spent several years preparing for a U.S. invasion, mobilizing almost the entire able-bodied adult population, male and female, into a popular militia. Had the U.S. invaded against the Bishop-led government it would have been a tragically bloody affair. As it turned out, however, Bishop's murder (he and his top advisers were cut to pieces by machine guns in the prison courtyard) destroyed the morale of the popular forces and only a hundred or so reported for duty. They augmented the regular battalion.

That regular battalion, as it turned out, would provide the only organized resistance to the U.S. invasion. The major parts of the unit included a mechanized company, a motorized company, a heavy weapons company and an anti-aircraft battery. These Grenadian (NOT Cuban) troops would fight for most of the day against the larger U.S. invaders, killing 17 or 18 out of the 19 American KIAs in the battle, as well as shooting down a couple of helicopters.

In game terns the best way to represent the actual defenders is to put two 2-4-4 battalions on the hill overlooking the Point Salines airport (hex 0860/0807). These represent the Cuban construction troops.
Use one of the 2-3-21 mech companies, one 2-4-21 motorised company, the mortar unit and both anti-aircraft units to represent the Grenadian regular battalion (not Cubans). Mix the rest of the Grenadian units together and randomly draw three of them to represent the militia that decide to report for duty. This should be everything. In addition to the regular VP schedule award the Grenadian player 2VP for every turn that the U.S. has NOT scored VPs for achieving his major geographic objectives (Gov. General Evac; Point Salines; Med students evac).

Mission: Grenada is the only simulation of this interesting fight and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. With the OB adjustments noted it's also authentic to the actual battle. The Grenadian "Mouse" still won't be able to hold off the American Eagle in either version of the OB, but the revised version better shows how long the odds truly were. As it was, man-for-man, the tiny Grenadian army may very well have been the most dangerous forces faced by the U.S. since Vietnam.

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